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Tree Nailing a deck - order of operations?

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Hi everyone,

I've just finished planking the deck of my AVS in holly and I'd like to add tree nails next. I've researched the MSW forums for a deck planking / tree nailing primer and can't seem to find one beyond Ulises Victoria's excellent Simple Butt-Shift Deck Planking Guide.


What I'd like to know is, should I treat the finished deck with polyurethane (I've been using Danish Oil on the hull?)  and then drill and fill the tree nails? Or do I drill and fill the tree nails, then scrape/sand everything flat and smooth before applying oil? 


I haven't decided whether the tree nails will be drawplate-made wood, or wood glue / filler yet. I don't know if that makes a difference. I am curious if there is an accepted 'right way' to install tree nails on a deck. Any input, links, advice and pictures are welcome!


Thank you in advance!


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I can't tell you if it's the "right" way or not, but I drilled the holes, filled them, scraped/sanded and then applied the finish (I used wipe on Poly).


I also made a couple of test deck planking sections and experimented with different fillers and hole sizes and then applied the finish in order to determine what specific size and filler to use to get it to look like I wanted.


I have an index on my first post of my AVS build log (link in signature) so you should be able to find the decking sections fairly easily if you haven't seen it.


If you apply the finish first, you'll just end up having to apply another coat after doing the treenails, and then you have to deal with scraping/sanding a deck covered with whatever finish you are using, which will probably gum up your sandpaper pretty good and be removing the finish anyway.

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Being old school - Davis/Underhill - it is sort of a belt and suspenders sort of philosophy  - using both glue and pegs.

The deck would be clamped using brass pins with a small piece of wood between the head of the pin and the plank.

The pin bent to apply pressure to the piece of wood.  With brass, if the pin is stuck, it can be cut off and filed. I have

been calling this "hutchocks".  When the glue dries the pin holes are then drilled for bamboo trunnels.  Working at

1:60 - a #70 is about 1 3/4" dia. in scale  

I find that the hole needs to be at least #68 or #67 or #66 to get a push fit without the bamboo getting stuck and breaking.

Before driving home the dowel, a smaller steel pin that has been deeply dipped in 9 parts Titebond III -1 part water is run thru the

hole a couple of times to provide the knotting. The peg is cut off using a sharp single edge razor blade.

Then the planking is sanded and scraped.


A problem with this when at 1:72 or smaller is that it starts to get to #80 dowels to keep the trunnels within anything close to scale and

#74 - #76 is as fine as pins get. And things are sort of fragile.

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I alway find the treenail discusssions interesting. 

The reality is of course on the 1:1 builds - on decks you can barely see them - if at all and contemporary models dont show them. 


Just Google images of say Victory's deck and see if you can spot one.


Treenail depiction is mainly a "Model makers construct"  -  mind i do them myself because they are "pretty" but never let oneself believe that they make the model more realistic - they dont !

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I alway find the treenail discusssions interesting. 

The reality is of course on the 1:1 builds - on decks you can barely see them - if at all and contemporary models dont show them. 


Just Google images of say Victory's deck and see if you can spot one.


Treenail depiction is mainly a "Model makers construct"  -  mind i do them myself because they are "pretty" but never let oneself believe that they make the model more realistic - they dont !


That is an overly general statement, as treenails (plugs) on decks vary wildly.  While it might be true of the Victory, that is just a single point of reference...


Here is the deck of the Endeavor:



America - very subtle, but visible:



Bill of Rights - Again, not high contrast, but certainly visible:









Exy Johnson (or Irving Johnson)



HMS Surprise








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I may have been a trifle over assertive but my point is mainly that many models would be a better representation if treenails were ignored except when the builder is of great skill.


As I said, I treenail because its looks pretty to me and draws more admiring comments from "lay people"


The pics above are mainly modernish vessels many with the deck in very poor state of repair. 

There is Victory and Warrior not showing any - couldnt see any on pics of Consitution eitehr and if you check the National Maritime Museum Models cant see treenails represented there either.


But its an individual choice always.


I drill mine  with a bit touched with a pencil and then varnish over - not at all realistic - but I like it !



Edited by SpyGlass
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Thank you all for the replies!


Gunther, I've actually got your build log bookmarked and I refer to it daily in my build. Your build and ALiuke's (I think I am mispelling his user name) are the reason I chose the AVS as my second build. Thank you so much for your feedback, I spent an hour last night going through the photos of your deck and trying to figure out how you did things.


Jaager, are you saying that you use the tree nails exclusively to hold deck planks down? Wow!


SpyGlass, I do understand your point; I also think tree nails are a visually attractive feature on a model. I decided to intentionally use shorted deck planks (~3 inch segments) on this model so that I could show more butt end planking and have a chance to practice tree nailing. My wife purchased the 4 book series on building a Swan class sloop of war from SeaWatch as a birthday present, and I am itching to try that next (or maybe the Echo cross section) Either way I'll need to practice tree nailing at some point. :)


Thanks again for taking the time to reply to my questions!

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Not just trunnels, Titebond II -  I apply a thin coat to both surfaces.  I just read something else that I have incorporated.

End grain to end grain does not make for a strong bond.  No big deal for deck planking, but can be for frame timbers.

The new technique:  apply a thin coat of PVA to the end grain surface and let it dry.  Then when gluing up the stick,

only one surface needs any fresh glue.  For decks, a separate supply of glue can be used that has burnt senna,

walnut,or similar dry pigment added to simulate caulking.

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Keep in mind what you are seeing is not trunnels but rather wooden plugs covering either nail or screw heads.  On the quarterdeck, supposedly, instead of a plug with wedge (as you can see in some of the pics) they would use a diamond shape with the grain running parallel with the grain of the plank.  I doubt you could see those, to scale.

I would say any of these would be max of 3/4" so be very careful of scale.  I have read of these being done with broom straws which are pretty small, but between 1" and 2" in 1:64 scale.

I've been working on a 1/2" scale model and have had good luck using the tip of a drafting pencil to make a deep mark.  This model I don't think had plugs, just the bare nails, but you can judge the appearance for yourself.



Edited by jbshan
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For the trunnels:  bamboo skewers are easy to find.  There are very long ones and shorter ones

in most grocery stores. I have gotten a supply recently that is a softer species,  will split straight down end to end more readily, and pulls better.  The negative - they do not standup to much push force, so the hole needs to be a gauge larger.



I have wire drawplates, and they work a champ for drawing wire - can get any wire gauge that there is

 a hole for.  They are not so good at sizing bamboo.


I got my setup before Jim Byrnes became a source so I use a General  No. 15





I find that drawplate tongs work pretty well - with or without the addition of a sandpaper gripper layer.




for #61 down, a General No. 13 works well.




Here, 220 grit sandpaper and my fingers are enough.

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    I agree with Joel (jbshan) that it would be unlikley you would be able to see the plugs in the  scale you are working.  Gunther's photos show a wide range of contrast, but in scale you are only looking at from about an inch away.  When looking at a 3/16 scale model from 3 feet away, you are looking from almost 200 scale feet away. 


    For those of you going to the NRG Conference in San Diego in October, look at the deck of SURPRISE or CALIFORNIAN from the upper deck of BERKELEY to gt a better perspective.



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Good examples, Dave, thanks.

Treenails have always seemed to me to be an example of doing a thing because you can, but if they are out of scale or, on hull planking, only used where the kit bulkheads happen to come instead of every foot or two, they're done mostly for the 'coo factor' ('coo, woodja look a' that').  Look at Chuck's work or TFFM series by David Antscherl for properly done, subtle work.

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Hello Matthew.


First of all thank you for the mention of my Deck planking guide.

What I do now, instead of actually using treenails in decks or hulls, is to just drill a hole with the smallest drill you have. Then I put a small drop of Boiled Linseed Oil (or you can use Tung Oil also) on a piece of very fine sandpaper. The dust will mix with the oil and fill the holes, giving the exact appearance of a wooden plug, which is exactly what treenails are (were). I later finish with a coat of the same BLO to even things out. To me this method has worked perfectly. The beauty of this is that you can use a really thin drill to achieve a more close scale, easier than using real treenails.


Here you can see the effect on the Z timbers




Hope this helps.



Edited by Ulises Victoria
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  • 2 months later...

Very interesting discussion. Being new to ship modeling, at first I liked the treenail look with high contrast, but after seeing so many out of scale treenails I have changed my mind, as to me it makes the deck planks seem too narrow. Also, if the treenails are slightly misplaced it is very apparent. Having discovered from reading all of the comments here and other places, and learning that treenails were never used and that plugs used to cover the countersunk spikes were cut from the same long grain boards used for the decking, I've decided that I really don't like high contrast treenails anymore. For those of you who like and use high contrast treenails in their decking (I'm sure that is probably most of you) please do not feel slighted by my remarks as my opinion is really of no consequence in the greater scheme of things, plus I have  the utmost respect for the model work being done, including the treenailing work. 


One interesting thing is that when I built my workbench top I eliminated a few knots by drilling them out with a Forstner bit and plugging with the same long grain material as used for the bench top and orienting the grain to line up with the bench top grain to make it as discrete as possible. When my shipwright friend saw this he said that the plugs grain should be positioned at a right angle to the bench top grain in order to keep a good seal all around the plug, as the plug will tend to shrink over time. This of course makes perfect sense to me, although as my friend said, it would probably be just fine the way I did it since it wouldn't be exposed to the weather. This makes me wonder how it was done back in the day. I'm thinking that most if not all of the decks on the historic ships have been replaced or at least repaired in modern times and perhaps the grain of the plugs have been aligned with the deck grain just for the sake of appearance. So has anyone seen historic documentation about the approved practice when these ships were built? I think it is kind of significant because the right angled plugs would have shown up pretty well, and as such would make a difference to the deck appearance on a model if one wanted to be purist about it.


In spite of my too many words on this subject I realize that it may be difficult to cut long grain plugs. Maybe a sewing needle bit would work, but the grain direction would likely be invisible at model scale anyway, so perhaps irrelevant. So what, it's Sunday and I have a lot of time on my hands!

Edited by Mike40
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I agree with you Mike in the point about high/low contrast treenails on deck. When I started building wooden kits, the high contrast seem to me the way to go, but as experience is gathered, the opposite is now true.

In fact, what I do now, is drill small holes with the smallest drill I have, then put some drops of Boiled Linseed Oil on a piece of very fine sandpaper and use it to sand over the holes. The BLO mixes with the dust filling the holes and leaving a very discreet spot.

Hope this helps.



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